Students As Storytellers

A local school’s book project and a Detroit site for the national 826 writing program get a boost from author/illustrator Dave Eggers

Like all successful writers, Michaela Jenkins has a process.

“First, I come up with a title,” says Michaela, 7. “After that, I think about the title and what relates to it. Then I write the words. Even though they might not be right, I can always fix them.

“Sometimes,” she adds, “I might draw pictures.”

Stories by Michaela and several of her fellow elementary students at The James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit were recently published in two collections, Omnibus and Where Is It Coming From? Both books are products of the 826 Michigan writing program, in which the Boggs students participate.

The program is part of a national nonprofit network of centers designed to inspire and support writing by kids, founded by famed author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) in 2002. 826 National publishes students’ writings each year, usually as small page count “chapbooks.” Eggers estimates the organization has published about 500 chapbooks since its founding.

Where Is It Coming From?, however, is noteworthy in part because Eggers himself illustrated it — making it the organization’s first illustrated story collection.

“Last year I visited [the Boggs School] and the kids read their stories out loud,” says Eggers, who returned to the school in November 2014 for Where Is It Coming From?’s release. “[The stories] were really funny, really electric. I took them home and read them to my kids, and they just cackled; I had to read some of them three times. I thought, OK, something special is happening here.”

Book proceeds will benefit the Boggs School and 826 Michigan. It is helping to herald an expansion for 826 Michigan, which got its start in Washtenaw County in 2005. The organization long had its eye on Detroit, but programming in the city was thin until a 2012 DTE grant enabled it to pick up the pace, says Executive Director Amanda Uhle.

The funding allowed the organization to hire a Detroiter, Courtney Randolph, to begin recruiting volunteers; the Detroit program now has eight staff and a crew of volunteers working in schools and libraries around the city.

“Part of our whole model is to engage adults to be involved in their own communities,” Uhle says. “We’re also a little different than 826 nationwide, because every other 826 has access to public transportation. As a result, we have a deep commitment to going to where our students are. We move the adults around — it’s more feasible than moving children around a city. Someone donated a car to us, and we fill that car with tutors all the time.”

Integral to each 826 center is a highly offbeat but legitimate retail front that both draws kids in and helps pay the bills. In Chicago, it’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co., for example; in Los Angeles, it’s the Time Travel Mart. In Ann Arbor, that front is the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair store, stocked with toys, gadgets, robot kits, and more. 826 is looking for a permanent location in Detroit, with plans for the Detroit Robot Factory as a counterpart to the Ann Arbor store.

Uhle says the program, with its emphasis on creativity, fostering connections between students and adults, and encouraging young writers seemed a perfect fit for the Boggs School, a public charter that opened in 2013.

“It’s such a special place,” Uhle says. “When Dave was here last, I felt I had to take him. At that visit they were doing kindergarten story time. The writing club was second- through fifth-graders, and we suggested they read their writings to the kindergarteners. The stories were so strange and so charming and just beautiful. Dave was really taken with them.

“When we were getting ready to go, he asked the students to give him the printouts. Then in September, he called me and said, ‘Remember those stories? I think I might illustrate this, all of it,’ ” Uhle says. “It’s been the most fun to put together.”

At the book reveal party at Boggs in November, students with stories in the published collections were invited to read them in front of an audience of teachers, parents, and visitors. As each student read aloud, some shyly, others with considerable gusto, Eggers held up a copy of the book for the audience to see the illustrations.

Then Ajani Defreece, 10, was called upon to read from his story, “Untitled.” He began, “Mars farted slowly on Earth.”

“Stop,” Eggers said. “That is the best opening line in the history of writing.”

The program at Boggs started as an after-school writing club that some students were reluctant to join, says Julia Putnam, Boggs’ principal. Then the students started doing writing exercises; before long, 826 was a hit.

“I think that children who see themselves as writers become people who tell their story,” Putnam says. “And it’s really important for Detroit, especially right now, for people to tell their stories. So to nurture them from this [age] is really exciting.”

Indeed, as Michaela explains her own love of writing: “What I like about writing is I can make up a story, or I can write about my life.”

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